Even though I wasn’t able to get this posted by the end of February, in honor of Black History Month and the first ever Black Comic Book Day (which took place Feb. 19th), I’d like to share some items on black history as it relates to comic books. These include reference sources, breaking historic news, a tragic loss to the industry and art form, and a list of black superheroes that are significant for their role in bringing racial diversity to comics and/or for the types of justice issues addressed by their origins and adventures.
There are several books on the history of black characters and creators in comics. These include the currently out of print Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, by Fredrik Strömberg, which covers newspaper comic strips as well as comic books; Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture, by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, which focuses on black comics creators; Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans, by Jeffrey A. Brown, which focuses on a particular publisher founded by African-American comic book writers and artists (see more below); and Looking For a Face Like Mine, a collection of essays by William H. Foster III that share his experiences as an African-American reading comic books that contained very few black characters. Since you’re already online, you may also want to check out BlackSuperhero.com (which features a “museum” containing a much more comprehensive list of character bios than the one I provide below), Black Superhero Fan, Black Superheroines!, TheOtherverse.net and The Ormes Society (dedicated to supporting black female comic creators and promoting the inclusion of black women in the comics industry as creators, characters and consumers).
I recently learned from the Fourth Age of Comics blog site (the inspiration for my last post) that U.S. Rep. John Lewis, former freedom rider and Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, has signed a deal with Top Shelf Productions to co-author a graphic novel, titled March, to be published in 2012. According to the news release:
A meditation in the modern age on the distance traveled, both as a nation and as a people, since the days of Jim Crow and segregation, March tells the first hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights.
This will mark the first time a sitting member of Congress has authored a graphic novel.
I was shocked and saddened to learn as I wrote this post that Dwayne McDuffie, one of the most influential African-American comic book creators of the past 20 years, died February 21 due to complications from surgery. That was one day after his 49th birthday.
Probably his greatest contribution to comics was his co-founding of Milestone Media (the subject of the book pictured above), the nation’s largest black-owned comic book company, with fellow African-American comic book professionals Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle. Milestone was created specifically to promote ethnic diversity in both comic book characters and creators. McDuffie explained his vision for Milestone when the company released its first titles in 1993:
If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor. We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn’t do just one book. We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that’s wider than the world we’ve seen before.
Four of Milestone’s signature characters—Hardware, Icon, Rocket and Static—are included in the list below.
Without characters like these, superhero comics would have retained their predominately pallid complexion—and that isn’t healthy for anyone.
Among the 13 characters in the following alphabetical list are the first black superhero, the first African-American superhero, the first black superhero woman, the first black superhero woman to star in a comic book series from a major publisher, the first black superhero in the history of the Marvel Universe and, in yet another fictitious universe, the first black superhero in the history of the Confederate States of America.
The real world history reflected in their stories include human experimentation, racist violence in the U.S. military, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and 1970s “blaxploitation films.”
If you aren’t into comic book minutiae about origins, secret identities and powers and equipment, I would suggest that you at least look at each entry’s First appearance section, to put the characters into historic context (click on the titles to see the comic book covers), and the Commentary section, to learn why they are included in the list. You can click on each character image for an enlarged view.
First appearance: Fantastic Four #52, July 1966
Creators: Stan Lee (writer) and Jack Kirby (artist)
Alter ego: T’Challa (King of Wakanda)
Origin: The title “Black Panther” is a rank of office bestowed on the chieftain of the Wakandan Panther Clan. As chieftain, the Panther is entitled to eat a special heart-shaped herb, gaining a mystical connection with the Wakandan Panther god that grants him heightened physical abilities and senses.
Abilities/Resources: Due to his link to the Panther god, T’Challa possesses superhumanly acute senses as well as strength, speed, stamina, and agility at the peak of human development. His senses are so powerful that he can track prey by scent and identify individuals by smell. T’Challa is master of all forms of unarmed combat whose unique hybrid fighting style incorporates acrobatics and aspects of animal mimicry. T’Challa’s costume is woven with Vibranium—a metal found only in Wakanda that absorbs the kinetic force of impacts—rendering him bulletproof. His gloves can generate energy daggers and house anti-metal claws that dissolve other metals on contact. He carries a credit card-sized computer that enables global communication, picks up satellite signals, and can block most radio transmissions. His boot soles are thick Vibranium alloy pads that can vibrate at various frequencies, allowing him to run up the sides of buildings, land soundlessly and without injury from a height of 50 feet, walk on water, or slice through metal. His costume is fitted with cloaking technology, allowing it to pass as normal street clothes. A brilliant tactician, strategist, and scientist—he has a Ph.D. in physics from Oxford University—T’Challa is considered one of the eight smartest people on the planet. As king of Wakanda, T’Challa has access to a vast collection of magical artifacts, advanced Wakandan technological and military hardware, as well as the support of his nation’s wide array of scientists, warriors, and mystics. The Wakandan military has been described as one of the most powerful on Earth.
Commentary: When Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther in 1966, he became the first black superhero in comic books. Coincidentally, his debut in Fantastic Four #52 took place just six months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton officially established the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. In fact, when the Black Panther Party began making national headlines for its militant, uncompromising opposition to racism, Marvel Comics somewhat embarassingly tried to distance itself from the group by having T’Challa change his superhero name to the Black Leopard (which is what a black panther really is). In Fantastic Four #119 (cover dated February 1972), while the FF are helping T’Challa escape from a fictitious white supremecist nation modeled after South Africa, he explains the change is an effort “to divorce myself from those within your own country who use the same name in order to promote their own political agenda.” Fortunately, he went back to his original name within a few months. The Black Panther had another run-in with both racists and controversy in 1976 when he battled the Ku Klux Klan in the pages of Marvel’s Jungle Action. As a noble and brilliant African leader, the Black Panther was a far cry from the racist stereotypes of Africans that predominated comic books during the 1940s. Black Panther recently married the first black superwoman in comics, X-Men member Storm (see her entry below).
First appearance: Brotherman # 1, April 1990
Creators: Guy A. Sims (writer) and Dawud Anyabwile (artist)
Alter ego: Antonio Valor (lawyer)
Origin: Committed to finding a way to right wrongs, protect the many and dispense much needed justice in a system long since corrupted, Big City public attorney Antonio Valor takes a step beyond official law enforcement as Brotherman, “Dictator of Discipline.”
Abilities/Resources: Brotherman is armed only with his strength, wit, intellect and his drive. He wears a bulletproof vest for protection.
Commentary: Self-published by its creators, David A. Sim and Dawud Anyabwile, Brotherman debuted at the 1990 New York Black Expo and sold 750,000 books within a four year span. The stories have been described as “fresh, poignant, exciting, funny, and inspirational.” The series is widely acknowledged as the spark for black comics explosion in the 1990’s. Most of these independently published Afro-centric titles—such as Malcolm 10 (Onli Comics); Original Man (Omega 7 Comics); and Ebony Warrior; Heru, Son of Ausar; Purge, and Zwanna, Son of Zulu (all from ANIA Publishing)—never gained Brotherman‘s critical acclaim or fan following and lasted only a couple issues. And all of them were eclipsed in the public spotlight by the titles debuted by Milestone Media in 1993 (see Hardware, Icon and Rocket, and Static below).
First appearance: Truth: Red, White & Black #1, January 2003
Creators: Robert Morales (writer) and Kyle Baker (artist)
Alter ego: Isaiah Bradley (U.S. soldier)
Origin: German expatriate Dr. Abraham Erskine develops the Super-Soldier serum for the U.S. military a year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, Erskine is murdered by a Nazi infiltrator moments after the doctor uses the serum on his first subject, transforming frail Steve Rogers into the mighty Captain America. A new team of military scientists attempts to recreate the serum, and decides to test the first batch on 300 African-American soldiers taken from Camp Cathcart, Mississipi, and subjected to potentially fatal experiments at an undisclosed location. Only five subjects survive the original trials (the families are told that their loved ones died in battle). In the name of secrecy, U.S. soldiers execute the commander and hundreds of black soldiers left behind at Camp Cathcart. Field missions in Europe and internal strife among the five remaining subjects result in Bradley being the sole survivor of his test group. Bradley steals a spare costume and a shield intended for Captain America before going on a suicide mission to destroy the Super-Soldier efforts of the Nazis at the Schwarzebitte concentration camp, and assassinate the doctor in charge of the program. Although successful, Bradley is captured by the Nazis and brought before Hitler, who decides to have him dissected to reverse engineer his powers then send the spare parts back to America. Bradley is rescued by German insurgents before Hitler’s orders are carried out, only to be court-martialed and imprisoned at Ft. Leavenworth around 1943. In 1960, Bradley was pardoned by President Eisenhower and released.
Abilities/Resources: The Super-Soldier formula transformed Isaiah into a physically perfect human. This means that his agility, dexterity, strength, speed, endurance, reflex and reaction time, coordination, and balance are greater than those of any Olympic athlete. In addition, he possesses an extraordinary resistance to disease and a dramatically slowed aging process. Isaiah was trained in unarmed combat by the U.S. Army. He carries a concave triangular metal shield, useful for either defense or offense, that bears the Double V Campaign eagle crest. This was a symbol of victory against the Axis as well as a victory against racial discrimination at home. He wears a loose chain mesh shirt over light padding that is capable of blunting the impact of most small arms fire.
Commentary: While the Black Panther is the first black superhero created in comics publishing history, in the Marvel Universe, Isaiah Bradley became the first black superhero about 25 years before T’Challa’s initial encounter with the Fantastic Four. The inspiration for the second Captain America’s origin came from the Tuskegee Experiments conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in Alabama, from 1932-1972, in which government doctors studied the effects of syphilis on impoverished, mostly illiterate African-American sharecroppers without ever informing them they had the disease or attempting to treat it. As outrageous and far-fetched as the mass murder of the black soldiers at Camp Cathcart may seem, it too has real life precedents. During World War II, large scale racial violence was committed by white soldiers against their black brothers-in-arms at Fort Dix, New Jersey (one killed, two wounded), and Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania (one killed, seven wounded). Allegedly, there was also a massacre of 1,200 black combat troops by white soldiers at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, that was covered up for 60 years. When Marvel first announced the upcoming release of Truth: Red, White & Black, the 2003 seven-issue miniseries that told the story of Isaiah Bradley, it caused quite a controversy. This was largely due to initial information that the experiments described in the story were part of the original Super-Soldier serum’s development, which meant that Isaiah Bradley was essentially the first Captain America. I actually think this would have made more sense, and some have suggested that negative public reaction to the idea (which apparently led to a rewrite of the script) was due in part to racism. In the Marvel Universe, although Isaiah Bradley never officially took up Steve Rogers’ mantle or title, he is considered the “Black Captain America,” and is an underground legend among much of the African-American community. Isaiah’s grandson, Elijah, is the red-white-and-blue-clad, shield-slinging superhero, Patriot. (For information on the third person to take up the mantle of Captain America, see Part 2 of my post, Happy Days?)
First appearance: Captain Confederacy #1, November 1991
Creators: Will Shetterly (writer) and Vince Stone (artist)
Alter ego: Kate Williams (government superhero)
Origin: More than 120 years after the South won the War of Secession, the government of the Confederate States of America struggles to maintain racial apartheid. After CSA scientists develop the Ultimate Potential Serum that grants superhuman strength and endurance, the Confederate Bureau of Investigation uses it in an elaborate propaganda campaign. White actors Jeremy Gray and Roxanne Huxley are transformed into Captain Confederacy and Miss Dixie so they can engage in scripted, predetermined and televised conflicts between equally super-powered back actors Kate Williams and Aaron Jackson (on whom the serum was first tested). Each triumph of the Dixie Duo over “Yankee spies and Nigra agitators” is intended to promote justice and the Confederate way. Kate defects to the northern United States of America, after which Aaron tries to expose the CBI’s deception to the public and is killed by Roxanne. Jeremy resigns and eventually reunites with Kate. The two fall in love as Jeremy works with the underground resistance to expose the truth about Captain Confederacy. Eventually convincing the President of the CSA that their nation needs a new myth, Jeremy and Kate fake their deaths and are then introduced to the public as Kid Dixie and the new Captain Confederacy.
Abilities/Resources: The Ultimate Potential serum grants Captain Confederacy superhuman strength and endurance and the agility, reflexes and reaction time of an Olympic athlete. She also possesses an extraordinary resistance to disease and her body recovers from injury with unnatural speed, allowing a minor bullet wound to heal overnight.
Commentary: Jeremy Gray’s last days as the first Captain Confederacy were told in a 12-issue black and white series released from 1986 to 1988 by independent publisher Steeldragon Press. Kate Williams’ adventures as the second Captain Confederacy were told in a 1991 four-issue color series from Marvel Comics’ former mature reader line, Epic Comics. This made Kate’s Captain Confederacy the first black female superhero with her own series published by a major comics publisher (this honor nearly belonged to DC Comics’ Vixen—see below). This series also paved new ground by showing the Captain performing superheroics throughout the story while eight months pregnant (with her and Jeremy’s mixed race child). Often assumed to be a piece of racist propaganda by people who haven’t read it, the original series received much critical acclaim for writer Will Shetterly‘s thoughtful and unflinching look at race relations. Shetterly was also praised for the intricate detail of the alternate universe he created, including a North American continent splintered into a group of nation states following the Confederacy’s successful 19th century secession from the Union. The entire series can be read online on the official Captain Confederacy blogsite.
First appearance: Captain America #117, September 1969
Creators: Stan Lee (writer) and Gene Colon (artist)
Alter ego: Sam Wilson (social worker)
Origin: Social worker Sam Wilson is lured to an island of former exiled Nazi’s and other would-be world conquerors as part of a complex scheme by the island’s ruler, the Red Skull, to defeat his arch-nemesis, Captain America. On the island, Steve Rogers (the original Captain America) befriends Wilson and helps him create the persona of the Falcon to inspire the natives in their rebellion against their oppressive rulers. Captain America trains the Falcon extensively before the two attack and defeat the Exiles and the Red Skull. The two return to the U.S., where the Falcon becomes Captain America’s regular partner, and eventually a renowned superhero in his own right. Initially focusing his crime-fighting attentions on Harlem, the Falcon has also addressed planet-wide threats as a member of the the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D.
Abilities/Resources: As part of his scheme to defeat Captain America, the Red Skull used a magic artifact to give Wilson an empathic bond with his trained hawk, Redwing. This initially allowed him to see through Redwing’s eyes, but his powers have since increased so that he can create a telepathic link with all birds. He is also able to access the memories of birds, and see things they had witnessed in the past (although birds have a different concept of the passage of time, which makes it difficult for him to know when any events they witnessed occurred). The Falcon can also mentally summon birds to come to his aid when needed. The Black Panther (see above) designed the Falcon’s current costume, which can create holographic “hard light” wings with a maximum wingspan of up to 50 feet. Controlled by a cybernetic link in the Falcon’s mask, the wings can be instantly reconfigured into dozens of different cruise configurations. A magnetic drive provides the thrust needed to get Falcon airborne. The emitter also possesses GPS Jamming Devices that prevent satellite tracking, while the hard-light wings interfere with infrared tracking. A Vibranium microweave (see the “Abilities/Resources” section of the Black Panther entry) was added to the costume, making Falcon resistant to small arms fire. The costume’s visors come equipped with infrared lenses, magnification capabilities, and remote imaging sensors that allow a full 360 degree of vision when activated. The cowl also has a wide band receiver and transmitter with an unspecified range. The Falcon is an excellent trainer of wild birds, and has been trained in gymnastics and hand-to-hand combat by Captain America. Redwing is a highly trained hunting falcon who responds to the Falcon’s verbal and mental commands and joins him in battle against his adversaries.
Commentary: Three years after creating the first African superhero, the Black Panther, Marvel Comics created the first African-American superhero. To make an even bolder statement, they made him the official partner of the living symbol of American ideals, Captain America. Despite these initial pioneering achievements in integrating superhero comics, additional early attempts by comic book publishers to introduce African-American superheroes, though well-intentioned, had mixed results. In the 1970s, Marvel Comics decided to cash in on the popularity of “blaxploitation” films like Shaft (1971), that feature badass, jive-talkin’ heroes dispensing rough ghetto justice to hit men, drug dealers and pimps. The title character of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire (1972) was a wrongly convicted escaped con who had the dubious distinction of being the only superhero who performed good deeds in exchange for pay. He was also the first black superhero character to star in his own comic book. Marvel’s female African-American private detective Misty Knight (introduced in 1975) was inspired by the title characters of blaxploitation films such as Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Then there were Marvel’s Black Goliath (1976) and DC Comics’ Black Lightning (1977), well-educated, upstanding African-American citizens who followed an early, embarrassing trend of including their skin color in the names of their superhero personas (at least in the case of the Black Panther, including the color descriptor made sense and wasn’t a reference to race).
First appearance: Green Lantern #87, January 1972
Creators: Denny O’Neil (writer) and Neal Adams (artist)
Alter ego: John Stewart (architect)
Origin: The Guardians of the Universe are the immortal founders and leaders of the Green Lantern Corps, an inter-galactic police force dedicated to protecting all sentient life. Identifying candidates based on their ability to overcome fear, the Guardians choose test pilot Hal Jordan as Green Lantern for Sector 2814 (which includes Earth) and select architect and veteran U.S. Marine John Stewart as his backup. When the Guardians eventually relinquish control of the Corps, Stewart and Jordan, along with several other Green Lanterns, continue their duties out of a sense of personal responsibility to the Corps’ oath:
In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power… Green Lantern’s light!
Abilities/Resources: Like all Green Lanterns, John Stewart is armed with a power ring that is often referred to as “the most powerful weapon in the universe.” The ring’s most distinctive effect is the generation of green, solid-light constructs. The size, complexity, and strength of these constructs is limited only by the ring-bearer’s willpower and imagination. A power ring encases its user in a protective, life-supporting force field that allows the user to fly, travel through inhospitable environments (outer space, underwater, etc.), and enter hyperspace in order to move vast distances quickly. The ring also generates the Green Lantern uniform, causing it to appear over normal attire or vanish at the user’s will. Power rings also act as highly advanced computers that are able to talk to and advise the wearer as to various courses of action, as well as act as a universal translator. The ring can also scan for energy signatures or particular objects. The ring must be recharged every 24 hours by briefly touching it to its matching power lantern. During this recharging process, it is customary for the user to recite the Green Lantern oath. As a USMC veteran Stewart is also trained in unarmed combat.
Commentary: John Stewart was introduced by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams during their historic 1970-1972 run as creative team on DC Comics’ Green Lantern comic book series. O’Neil’s first change was to add co-star Green Arrow, a formerly nondescript Robin Hood-inspired superhero who he portrayed as a cranky liberal exposing the flaws in Hal Jordan’s traditional law and order morality. O’Neil began a lively debate on a variety of pressing social concerns, starting with a famous scene in Green Lantern #76 (May 1970), where an elderly African-American gentleman poignantly asks the title character why he devotes so much time to protecting the many-hued inhabitants of planets throughout the universe while ignoring the plight of people of color on his own world. In addition to racism, during the next two years, Green Lantern went on to address such topics as sexism, political corruption, poverty, overpopulation and pollution. O’Neil introduced John Stewart as another character with a belligerent attitude toward authority figures. On his first mission as a Green Lantern, Stewart takes the opportunity to publicly embarrass a racist politician he is assigned to protect. I first encountered John Stewart in Justice League of America #110 (1974), where he uses his power ring to construct clean, warm and safe housing for the residents of a slum. Lastly, in honoring the memory of Milestone co-founder Dwayne McDuffie, I want to point out one of his legacies involving this character. As writer for the Cartoon Network’s Justice League (2001-2004), he provided young television viewers with a heroic black role model by using John Stewart as the Green Lantern in the series, rather than the more well-known Hal Jordan.
First appearance: Hardware #1, April 1993
Creators: Dwayne McDuffie (writer) and Denys Cowan (artist)
Alter ego: Curtis Metcalf (engineer)
Origin: Mentored by billionaire businessman, Edwin Alva Sr., working class child prodigy Curtis Metcalf graduates from prep school at age 14 and earns his first college degree at age 15. Alva covers all the tuition fees for Curtis to achieve six more college degrees, in exchange for Curtis coming to work for Alva Industries. After years of making millions for Alva through his inventions, Curtis asks for a modest share of profits. Alva rebuffs Curtis and makes it clear that he considers him nothing more than a “cog in the machine.” Unable to quit due to a clause in his contract prohibiting him from working for any of Alva’s competitors, Curtis instead decides to do some corporate espionage, looking for leverage to use against his employer. He is shocked to discover that Alva is the head of an organized crime empire involving drugs, corrupt politicians and illegal arms trade with foreign governments. Curtis sends incriminating computer files to the authorities and media, only to find that Alva is so powerful as to be above the law. Curtis decides to take matters into his own hands, using Alva’s own equipment and resources and establishing a base of operations in an abandoned bomb shelter connected to his lab by a hidden elevator. Every night, wearing high tech body armor and an array of sophisticated weapons and other equipment, he sets out as Hardware to seek out and destroy all of Alva’s illegal business operations.
Abilities/Resources: Curtis Metcalf is a genius-level intellect and one of the most brilliant scientific minds on the planet. He has created breakthroughs in metallurgy, computer science, nanotechnology, and plasma weapons. He is also a good hand-to-hand combatant, having been trained by his father in the martial arts. Curtis’ Hardware armor provides him with enhanced strength, a host of internal weaponry, and pre-programmed combat sequences that allow for instant responses to threats that Curtis’ natural fighting skills are insufficient to handle. Hardware’s systems are operated by a wafer-thin on-board computer that displays its output through a heads-up display in his helmet. Hardware can fly using the collapsible, short-range jet pack mounted to the back of his chest plate. Some of his weaponry includes his Neural Net, an electrical field fired from a forearm-mounted cannon that painfully disrupts the nervous system of anyone it touches; expandable Plasma Whip, a metal chain telescoping from 10 inches to 15 feet long, charged at its tip with high-energy plasma; and an 18-inch wrist-mounted blade and 30-inch blade mounted to the outside of his forearm. A voice synthesizer alters Curtis’ speaking voice to Hardware’s cold, intimidating tone. Hardware can also use it to project different male and female voices, and translate his speech into several foreign languages.
Commentary: Hardware was the longest running of Milestone Media’s flagship titles, lasting for exactly four years (1993-1997) and 50 issues. The character followed in the footsteps of armor-wearing African-American superheroes like Marvel’s War Machine (played by Don Cheadle in 2010’s Iron Man 2) and DC’s Steel (played in the awful 1997 movie of the same name by Shaquille O’Neal). Hardware and the other characters of the Milestone Universe (see Icon & Rocket and Static below) live in the fictional Midwest city of Dakota. Perhaps the most unlikely defender of Dakota is the super powered street gang called the Blood Syndicate, which includes Hispanic and Japanese-American as well as African-American members. Milestone’s ever-growing superhero population eventually included Chinese-Americans, East Indian-Americans and a Palestinian (see the entry for Iron Butterfly in my previously posted list of women superheroes). Intent on their mission to introduce comic book readers to greater racial diversity and multiculturalism, Dwayne McDuffie and the other founders of Milestone took two important steps to attract a wide readership: they made issues of race secondary to good storytelling, and entered into an arrangement with DC Comics to let the industry giant handle promotion and distribution for its entire line. Unfortunately, Milestone’s moderately successful debut was followed by consistently falling sales, and the publishing line finally folded in 1997.
First appearance: Icon #1, May 1993
Creators: Dwayne McDuffie (writer) and Denys Cowan (artist)
Alter egos: Arnus/Augustus Freeman IV (mediator/lawyer) and Raquel Ervin (single mother)
Origin: On a night in 1839, an alien spaceship plummets from the night sky, crashing to the ground somewhere in the Deep South, and gouging a long trench through the rich soil of a vacant field before finally coming to an abrupt stop. Awakened by the thunderous noise, the slave woman Miriam runs out from her cabin and approaches the large metal sphere resting in a smoldering mound of upturned earth. As she cautiously touches the object’s smooth hull, sensors instantly read her DNA and reconfigure the genes of the strange visitor inside so his discoverer will accept him. When the door of the ship slowly opens, Miriam finds a beautiful, black baby boy smiling up at her. Over 150 years later, the stranded space traveler lives in the Midwestern city of Dakota under the guise of wealthy attorney Augustus Freeman IV. There he meets teenager Raquel Ervin, who challenges him to give something back to “his people” after seeing him demonstrate abilities far beyond those of mortal African-American men. In response, Freeman outfits himself as Icon, the Hero of Dakota, and Raquel as his trusty sidekick, Rocket..
Abilities/Resources: Icon possesses superhuman strength, speed, reflexes and stamina nearly as great as Superman’s. He is nearly invulnerable, being capable of withstanding tremendous impact forces, high caliber bullets,exposure to temperature and pressure extremes and powerful energy blasts without sustaining injury. He is even capable of surviving in the vacuum of space unaided. If he is injured, his body is capable of quickly repairing damaged tissue with much greater speed and efficiency than the normal human body. Icon can fly at supersonic speeds and generate concussive bolts of positronic energy from his hands. He possesses enhanced mental perceptions and superhuman senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Icon equipped Rocket with an alien device in her belt buckle that surrounds her in an “inertia field” that absorbs, stores, and redirects any kinetic energy used against it. Rocket’s inertia field is normally invisible to the human eye, but glows purple when it absorbs or releases kinetic energy. The inertia field primarily serves as a force field that protects her from anything invested with kinetic energy, such as physical blows, bullets or falls. The field normally extends a few inches from Rocket’s body, but she can expand it to enclose and protect others. Rocket can strike blows with superhuman force by releasing the field’s stored energy through her fists. Rocket can also project powerful energy blasts from her hands by releasing her stored energy in focus beams. Rocket can fly by directing her inertia field’s kinetic energy beneath her, launching her skyward. Rocket is capable of flying through narrow corridors and performing complex aerial maneuvers as well as hovering in midair.
Commentary: There were 42 issues of Icon published over a period of three and a half years. Icon was the Superman analog of the Milestone Universe, both in terms of his power and his status as a role model, although his mentorship of Rocket was more reminiscent of the relationship between Batman and Robin. An interesting difference between the dynamic duo and their Dakota counterparts is that teen-aged and underprivileged Raquel enlists rich, upper class Augustus into a career of superheroics. Although he had first come to America before the abolition of slavery, centuries spent amassing wealth and privilege had left him out of touch with the present-day struggles endured by many of the people in whose image his alien technology had reshaped him. Rocket also has the distinction of being the first superhero who is also a teenaged single mother. Like Captain Confederacy (see above), she continued to adventure while pregnant, although only briefly.
First appearance: Supreme Power #4, January 2004
Creators: J. Michael Straczynski (writer) and Gary Frank (artist)
Alter ego: Kyle Richmond (millionaire)
Origin: As a child, Kyle Richmond’s wealthy parents, Titus and Rosalie, are murdered in front of his eyes by racists while the family is walking home one evening in Memphis, Tennessee. Years later, Kyle uses his father’s investments to build a successful corporation in Chicago, and, with its resources, becomes a masked vigilante hunting criminals who victimize African-Americans. Kyle is inspired to adopt the persona of Nighthawk by the nocturnal bird of prey his father had been telling him about immediately before he was murdered.
Abilities/Resources: Nighthawk uses a combination of fighting prowess, stealth and advanced weaponry of his own design. He wears a bulletproof costume and is equipped with items such as night-vision goggles and throwing knives. Although possessing no superhuman abilities, he is an Olympic level athlete and an excellent combatant. Nighthawk is also an accomplished forensic scientist.
Commentary: When Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski introduced a revised version of the Marvel Comics superhero team, the Squadron Supreme, in the comic book series Supreme Power, he made several alterations to the original characters. These included changing the race of the original Nighthawk from white to black. When Marvel created the Squadron Supreme in 1971, its members were modeled after those of DC Comics’ Justice League of America, with Nighthawk as the team’s Batman analog. By changing not only Kyle Richmond’s race, but the nature of his parents’ murderers, Straczynski was able to introduce issues of racism and classism into the story that are not commonly addressed in superheroic fiction. These included Nighthawk’s general distrust of whites and “the system,” and his controversial policy of only intervening in crimes against African-Americans (which is similar to Winged Victory’s policy of aiding women over men—see her entry in my list of superhero women). Writing for Marvel’s adult audience Max imprint, Straczynski took an overtly political tone throughout the entire series, addressing U.S. foreign affairs, covert operations and the war in Iraq, among other things. A 1986 Squadron Supreme series, written by Mark Gruenwald, had previously drawn critical attention for showing the attempts of the super team to end crime, war, poverty, pollution and other social ills by essentially taking over control of all the world’s governments.
First appearance: Static #1, April 1993
Creators: Dwayne McDuffie (writer) and John Paul Leon (artist)
Alter ego: Virgil Hawkins (high school student)
Origin: Teenager Virgil Hawkins attends a huge showdown between the gangs of Dakota City in hopes of getting revenge against a gang member who had been bullying him at school. The authorities arrive and release a tear gas they believe has been laced with a harmless radioactive marker so that any fleeing gang members can be tracked and arrested. The police are unaware that the gas also contains an experimental mutagenic chemical called Quantum Juice. This causes most of the exposed gang members to develop nearly instantaneous, and largely fatal mutations (this event eventually comes to be referred to as the “Big Bang,” and its survivors as “Bang Babies”). When the agency behind the experiment tries to capture Virgil, he fights back, discovering that he has gained the ability to generate and control electromagnetic energy.
Abilities/Resources: Static’s powers connect him to the Earth’s electromagnetic field and allow him to generate and store his own electromagnetic energy. He can magnetize objects, release powerful bolts of directed electricity to stun and incapacitate opponents, levitate people and objects (such as a self-built metal saucer he uses to fly), restrain or adhere people or objects to various surfaces through “static cling,” and deliver “taser punches” with effects similar to a stun gun. He can also create various electromagnetic displays and effects such as electromagnetic nets or cages, blinding flashes, ball lightning, and electromagnetic pulses. He can generate electromagnetic force fields to shield himself from attacks, even stopping bullets in mid-air. Static can also drain sources of electricity, such as power lines, batteries and fuse boxes to recharge his own energy supply.
Commentary: This wise-cracking, teenaged superhero was Milestone’s answer to Marvel’s Spider-Man. The Quantum Juice unleashed at the Big Bang was developed by Alva Industries and was also responsible for the powers gained by both the Blood Syndicate and Iron Butterfly (see the “Origin” and “Commentary” sections of the Hardware entry above). Static’s comic book series ran for 45 issues and nearly four years, but he gained a second lease on life when Milestone co-founder Dwayne McDuffie created an animated television series about him, called Static Shock. The costume pictured here was designed for the cartoon series, and later adopted in his comic book adventures, such as the story about anti-Muslim violence I mentioned in my previous post on 9/11. I prefer his original, sleeker, Malcolm X baseball cap-wearing look, which is pictured on the book cover at the top of this post.
First appearance: Giant-Size X-Men #1, May 1975
Creators: Len Wein (writer) and Dave Cockrum (artist)
Alter ego: Ororo Iqadi T’Challa (Queen of Wakanda)
Origin: Ororo’s mother, N’dare, is an African princess who marries American photojournalist David Monroe and moves with him to Manhattan, where Ororo is born. When Ororo is six months old, she and her parents move to Cairo, Egypt. Five years later, during the Arab-Israeli conflict, a plane crashes into their home, killing Ororo’s parents. Homeless and orphaned, Ororo is taken in by a gang of street urchins whose adult master trains Ororo in the art of thievery. After years of living on the streets and stealing, when Ororo’s mutant powers begin to manifest as a young woman, she leaves Cairo and journeys to her ancestors’ homeland on the Serengeti Plain in Kenya. She is taken in by an elderly tribal woman named Ainet who teaches her to be responsible with her powers. Ororo soon comes to be the object of worship of the local tribes who believed her to be a goddess due to her gift. Eventually, Prof. Charles Xavier visits Ororo in Kenya and convinces her to give up her pampered, sheltered life there and use her powers to save the world from global threats as a member of the X-Men.
Abilities/Resources: Storm is a mutant who possesses the psionic ability to manipulate weather (even within indoor areas or artificially maintained environments). She can create any form of precipitation such as rain, snow or fog, generate winds in varying degrees of intensity up to and including hurricane force, raise or lower the humidity and temperature in her immediate vicinity, induce lightning and other electrical atmospheric phenomena (which she can direct to strike specific targets), and disperse natural storms. The size of the area over which Storm can manipulate the weather covers a vast range: she can create a rainstorm small enough to water a single potted plant and once diverted the jet stream so as to create storms over the entire East Coast of the United States. Storm is able to fly by creating winds strong enough to support her weight (and the weight of others) and propel her through the air, reaching speeds up to 300 miles per hour. Her powers over the atmosphere enable her to breathe at any speed, protect her from air friction, and grant her limited immunity to extreme heat and cold. In addition to her mutant abilities, Storm is extraordinarily skilled at picking both locks and pockets, and is a gifted hand-to-hand combatant.
Commentary: Storm was the first black female superhero in mainstream comics and has remained arguably the world’s most popular and recognizable black superhero, due in part to her portrayal by Academy Award-winning actor Halle Berry in the X-Men films. Storm recently married the first black superhero, the Black Panther (see his entry above). In addition to her historic significance, as a long-time member and sometimes leader of the X-Men, she also serves as an embarrassing reminder of the team’s sexist name. I also included Storm in my previously posted list of women superheroes.
Creators: Bob Rozakis (writer) and Curt Swan (artist)
Alter ego: Mari Jiwe McCabe (model)
Origin: Growing up in a small African village, Mari’s mother tells her the legend of the “Tantu Totem,” a fox-head shaped talisman created by the god Anansi, that connects the wearer to the animal world. Sometime later, Mari’s mother is killed by poachers and she is raised by her father Reverend Richard Jiwe, the village priest. Her father is later killed as well by his half-brother, General Maksai, who wants the Tantu Totem, which Jiwe possessed. Mari moves to America, where she establishes herself as a model in New York City. She uses her new-found wealth to travel the world and on a trip back to Africa, retrieves the Tantu Totem from General Maksai. Taking it back to the U.S., she uses its power to become the costumed superhero Vixen.
Abilities/Resources: The Tantu Totem lets Vixen mimic the abilities of any animal on earth (without changing her physical form). In the past, her power has allowed her to do such things as fly like a hawk, swim like a dolphin, run like a cheetah, use echolocation like a bat, climb walls like a spider, jump like a cricket, constrict like an anaconda, sense like a wolf, perform acrobatics like a monkey, produce debilitating shocks like an electric eel, and exert the strength of bull elephant. She does not have to have the totem on her person to use its powers.
Commentary: Vixen’s powers make her a female counterpart to my favorite superhero, Animal Man. Although she unfortunately does not share his commitment to animal rights, she has used her powers to stop poachers. Vixen nearly had the distinction of being the first black female superhero character to star in her own comic book, but her planned 1978 debut issue from DC Comics was canceled in a publishing crisis known as the DC Implosion (which led to the honor going instead to Captain Confederacy—see her entry above). Of course, that assumes you don’t count the well-intentioned but culturally naïve issue of DC Comics’ Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane (cover dated November 1970), in which the Daily Planet reporter tries to learn what it’s like to be African-American by using Kryptonian technology to turn herself black for a day. DC narrowly avoided an even more offensive moment in 1977 when writer Tony Isabella talked the publishers out of going through with plans for a series about the Black Bomber. This character was a white racist who, due to an Agent-Orange-like chemical he was exposed to in Vietnam, would actually transform into a black superhero whenever he became angry.